Lost Children Archive II

lost-children-archiveJust over halfway through Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, the book takes a sudden turn as the narrative switches from the point of view of the mother to that of her ten-year-old stepson. “What else do you see, Ground Control?” the mother has just asked (186), alluding to one of the key tracks on their shared road-trip playlist, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a song that is of course very much about alienation (becoming-alien) and (mis)communication. “Calling Major Tom,” the boy seems to respond. “This is Ground Control. You copy me, Major Tom?” (191). But it soon becomes clear that this is not exactly a response to the mother’s question (though it is not exactly not a response, either), for as well as a new narrator we also have a new addressee: “This is the story of us, and of the lost children, from beginning to end, and I’m going to tell it to you, Memphis” (191). Memphis is the boy’s (step)sister, who has taken on that name as part of a round of collective familial renaming: “I’ll be Memphis. Just Memphis” (107). The boy, meanwhile, has adopted the name “Swift Feather.” And so, as the children start to inhabit and speak from these new identities, the book’s tone also changes, from the (over?) analytical realism of the mother’s narration to something more like myth, an epic (albeit in miniature) reminiscent of a classic children’s tale such as Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, much like Huck, Swift Feather and Memphis are about to “light out for the territory ahead of the rest.”

From the back of the car, the boy and his sister have been listening to their parents’ stories–both the stories directed at them, and others that they were not necessarily intended to overhear, as well as still others that perhaps the parents did not even know they were telling. Sometimes the girl falls asleep; sometimes the boy has been pretending to do the same. And through it all the children have been coming up with their own stories, many of which are echoes or slightly distorted versions of and responses to the narratives that the adults have been providing them. It is these echoes that come to the fore now, as the boy decides to take his sister in hand so that the two of them can look for themselves for the “lost children,” the refugee sisters (and others like them) crossing the border from Mexico, that the mother has been talking and worrying about all this time. Of course, as the kids set off, first ransacking their mother’s “archive” (a box in the back of the car) to take a map, a sound recorder, and her copy of the book she has been reading, Elegies for Lost Children, “Swift Arrow” and “Memphis” also join the ranks of the lost. Indeed, the boy will come to realize that his plan that they should look “for themselves” (on their own account) will overlap with a broader project, forced upon them, to look “for themselves” in the sense of trying to figure out how the two of them fit in to the wider world of which they are necessarily a part.

So Swift Feather and Memphis embark on their own trek, which is itself an echo both of their parents’ expedition and of the arduous journey undergone by the Central American migrants whom they are hoping to contact. There is something childishly narcissistic about this endeavor, as their aim is in part to reclaim the attention of their mother and father: “if we too were lost children,” the boy imagines, “we would have to be found again. Ma and Pa would have to find us” (238). But at the same time they are exposing themselves to many of the same kinds of dangers faced by refugee children; they shed the creature comforts and protection of the family unit and their relative privilege to ride a train much like the Bestia and to hike through the desert with minimal food or water. They start to inhabit a struggle for survival that is otherwise barely unimaginable. And this too, perhaps, explain why here the novel becomes almost dreamlike, even as it narrates an encounter with something like the real of danger and deprivation.

Everything comes to a climax (if not a resolution) in an extraordinary passage of almost twenty pages that is one interrupted sentence in which the point of view regularly switches between the brother and sister on the one hand, and the bedraggled migrants (now reduced to a small group of four) on the other who walk almost literally out of the pages of the Elegies for Lost Children. Their disparate stories finally if briefly coincide, at an abandoned goods train whose open sliding doors “looked like a window I was looking through from our side of the desert to the other side,” where the boy hears a sound that “got louder and louder so I knew it wasn’t an echo but a real sound,” and where he throws a rock only to find

a rock come flying back at us, [. . .] a real rock that the boy and his sister would have mistaken for an echo, confused as they were about cause and effect as the normal link between events, were it not for the fact that the rock thrown back at them hits the boy on his shoulder, so very real, concrete, and painful [. . .] who’s there I said, who’s there he says, and hearing the sound of his voice, the four children look at each other in relief, because it is a real voice, finally, clearly not a lost desert echo, not a sound-mirage like the ones that had been following them all along (330)

And in the transition from “I said” to “he says,” the change in point of view is marked by the shift in pronouns, but a common ground is also established precisely as “I” becomes “he,” as first person becomes third person, as a point of identification is established that renders the echo tangible and material without depriving it of any of its mythic qualities.

It is as though Luiselli were saying that it is only by treating such stories with the seriousness and naiveté, the trusting literalness, with which children treat the tales they are told, that we can establish some kind of connection with the unbearable and unimaginable horrors of the migrant experience. Her previous book, Tell Me How It Ends, which is also about Central American child migrants, never quite loses the adult point of view and insists that “the stories told in this essay are true” (107), adding footnotes to document each of its accusations about the injustices of the US judicial system that processes asylum claims. Lost Children Archive, by contrast, whose “Notes on Sources” list instead the series of literary works (from Pound’s Cantos to Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), achieves, or comes close to achieving, the much more difficult task of imprinting on us the sense that the stories it tells and the voices it conjures up are real.

Lost Children Archive I

lost-children-archiveHow to write about the migrant experience today? More particularly, how to write about the current crisis at the US/Mexico border? The multiple forms of violence compelling continued migration north, especially from Central America; the deliberate collapse of the asylum system and the rule of law; the separation of children from families amid the institution of a system of what are effectively concentration camps operated by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As the Covid-19 pandemic grips us, these stories may be fading from consciousness, but immigration to the USA has long been denounced via the rhetoric of disease and contamination. And Trump is fond of referring to immigrants and people of color in terms of “infestation”, just as he wants to insist that Covid-19, “the Chinese virus,” comes from beyond US borders.

Earlier this year, this question of who and how to write about migration and the borderlands flared into a brief but intense controversy around Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a novel that was harshly criticized on the grounds that it commodified and exoticized migrant trauma for an Anglo audience. One text repeatedly put forward by that book’s critics as offering a better approach to representing the border crisis and its ramifications was Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which in fact puts the problem at center stage.

Luiselli’s novel is in some ways the inverse to Cummins’s. Though its narrative focuses similarly on a mother and her child, a fractured family making its way to the border, here the journey starts in the north, rather than the south, and the fracture is psychological or affective, rather than the very literal rupture with which American Dirt spectacularly opens. Here the family are (so far, at least) physically together: a husband and wife, with a child each that they bring from previous relationships. And together they are embarked on a trip from New York to the US Southwest. But whether they will remain together once the trip is over is uncertain, perhaps unlikely. Though the parents are both engaged in recording sounds (as either documentarians or documentarists; the difference seems both ineffable and yet somehow absolute), each has their own project, their own goal in mind. He is in search of the traces of the last Native Americans to surrender to the US state, the Apache band led by the semi-mythical Geronimo. She has taken on a vaguely journalistic mission to investigate the plight of children detained on the border, specifically the two children of a woman with whose legal case she has become involved. And however much the narrator (the first half of the novel is written almost entirely from the mother’s point of view) can reflect on the ways in which these two obsessions overlap, interact, and resonate with each other, she and her husband are barely able to communicate except indirectly, as they try to keep their two young children, aged ten and five, amused and more or less oblivious of the cracks opening up in the cramped atmosphere of the family car. At the same time, she also increasingly realizes that the children, too, are in many ways “strangers, especially when we add them together” (74). Indeed, the entire novel is a meditation on the many possible forms of alienation, the ways in which “the other can suddenly become a stranger” (21), as even those with whom we are most intimately connected become alien to us.

The husband seems to be much more sure of himself and what he is doing, though this may be a consequence of the fact that we have much less access to whatever thoughts and concerns may be preoccupying him. He tells the kids stories about the Apache, confidently if not necessarily reliably (“I don’t know if what my husband is telling them is true” [74]). When they stop somewhere, as they often do, he gets out his recording equipment to capture a soundscape of ambient noise, “collect[ing] sounds that are usually not noticed [. . .]. Maybe the rain falling on this tin roof, some birds if we can, or maybe just insects buzzing” (96). At other times, the four of them listen to the news on the radio, to music, or to audiobooks, notably William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But for all the assurance with which these narratives are presented, his wife notes that the children “combine the stories, confuse them. They come up with possible endings and counterfactual histories” (75). And, much more (apparently) than her husband, she is led to meditate therefore on the uncertain fate of any story, including (it is implied) the one that is told by Lost Children Archive itself.

When the mother tells us of her worries about her own project, these are surely then indications of concerns about any attempt, including Luiselli’s own, to have some kind of social impact through art. As the narrator says: “How can a radio documentary be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?” This she terms a “political concern.” But she goes on, as the narration continues in something like stream of consciousness, to itemize other problems with what we could “politically-committed” art, including the “Aesthetic problem: On the other hand, why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end? I should know by now that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results.” This then leads her to consider the perhaps even more significant

Ethical problem: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? [. . .] Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry [. . .]. (79)

Luiselli’s novel steadfastly keeps these issues in view, as if by raising them (and not simply confining them to an “Author’s Note” tacked on at the end, as does Cummins) she may not quite ward them off, but at least warn the reader and invite us to think about our own complicity in the kinds of stories that are told about migration and their effects on others (and surely also ourselves). Hence too, no doubt, the obliqueness of Luiselli’s portrayal of the refugee crisis: we are halfway through what is not a short book, and still a long way from the border.

But we already realize that the borderlands stretch a long way. Space and time in this novel both expand and contract. Just as the narrator’s husband is convinced that the echoes of the nineteenth-century history can be almost materially registered by his recording devices, so Luiselli suggests that the injustice and violence of asylum and immigration policy can and should resonate far beyond their specific geographical limits. As we have been forcefully reminded of the current pandemic: this affects us all.

The House on Mango Street

mango-streetDozens of characters flit through the pages of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Alicia, for instance, who “is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university”; but her mother has died and so she has “inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness” as she has to get up early and look after the family, before taking “two trains and a bus” to study because “she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin” (30-1). Or Elenita, “witch woman,” who earns a few extra dollars by telling fortunes in her kitchen where “the top of the refrigerator [is] busy with holy candles” (62, 63). Interrupted by her kids, who she has shunted out to a living room where the sofa is covered in plastic, she “gets up to hit and then hug them. She really does love them, only sometimes they are rude” (64). Or there is Sire, a boy who hangs out on his bike with his friends and watches as the narrator, Esperanza, passes and crosses the street: “It made your blood freeze to have somebody look at you like that” (73).

Many of these characters disappear in the wake of these quick but arresting pen portraits. It is as though the book can hardly settle long enough on any of them for us to come to know where they come from or where they are going to. Yet almost always we are left with a startling detail, revealing perhaps more than the child narrator knows or intends to tell, a detail that indicates that there is much more still to be said. In Alicia’s case, this is when we are told that she is afraid of nothing except the mice she sees (or imagines she sees) late at night as she burns the candle at both ends. “And fathers” (32). Then the narrative swiftly moves on–to a tale of “Darius & the Clouds”–leaving the suggestion of some unmentionable violence hanging in the air. Mango Street is as vibrant and colorful as the tropical fruit that gives it its name, but it is also permeated by shadow, not least the shadow of gendered violence and the expectations that young women above all find it nearly impossible to shake off.

In fact, Alicia returns almost at the end of the book, in one of its final vignettes. Not that we hear much more about her fears. She and Esperanza are talking, and “she is listening to my sadness because I don’t have a house” (106). But Esperanza does, Alicia points out, have the house that gives this very book its title:

You live right here, 4006 Mango, Alicia says and points to the house I am ashamed of.
No, this isn’t my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I’ve lived here. I don’t belong. I don’t ever want to come from here. (106)

Shame is a recurrent feature of Esperanza’s experience in this Chicago neighborhood: she is made to feel (and internalizes) shame for being female, poor, and Hispanic. In some ways, indeed, shame is the book’s dominant affect, if it weren’t for the humor and quick-witted observation that also pervade almost all these brief stories. And Alicia, perhaps the one (other) possibly upwardly mobile figure we meet, already knows that Esperanza will not so easily be able to deny her origins, for to do so would be to try to erase something that is by now integral to her very self: “No, Alicia says. Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you’ll come back too” (107). This may sound like a prediction (or projection) of failure: that every attempt Esperanza makes to escape will be doomed.

But Cisneros suggests that Esperanza (or Cisneros herself, in so far as this book is broadly autobiographical) will be able to negotiate the tension between escape and acknowledgement, between shame and pride, though writing itself. “You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza,” her Aunt Lupe tells her, “It will keep you free” (61). At the time the young girl “didn’t know what she meant”–and in fact she and her friends treat her aunt shamefully, imitating her, mocking her blindness and incapacity, “with our heads thrown back, our arms limp and useless, dangling like the dead” (61). But by the end of the story, Esperanza has realized that the stories she is telling are a means to take her distance from Mango Street: “I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes” (110). But they are also, of course, a way to return, to render homage to those who stayed, to those, “las mujeres” to whom the book is dedicated, who were unable to leave and had to live in the shadows. Without exactly shining a light on that darkness, without pretending to give us anything like a full representation of these lives at the margins, Cisneros’s book at least offers a glimpse of a myriad of stories that would otherwise go untold, stories that if told in full should shame us all.

Bless Me, Ultima II

anaya_ultimaThe phrase that gives Rudolfo Anaya’s novel its title, “Bless me, Ultima,” does not arise until almost the very last page, when Ultima is on her deathbed. She is dying not so much because she herself is sick or has been injured, but because the owl that in some way represents her soul (is her soul?) has been shot and killed. Placing the bird, wrapped in a blanket, by the old woman’s bed, Antonio, who has been her acolyte and intimate, “drop[s] to [his] knees” and asks

“Bless me, Ultima–” Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were “I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live. Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you–“ (260-61)

And so the torch is handed on. Of course, Ultima has to die for Antonio to become what he will be, and to be in a position to chart his own path in the future. His childhood is now at an end, and so therefore is this narrative, which has described what its very first page described as a “magical time” (1) so evocatively. However much has happened in the twelve months or so that the book covers (from the beginning of one school year to another), it is understood that in many ways this was all an interlude, a respite from another form of reality, or perhaps another way of looking at the real, which will pick up again after the final page has been turned.

In fact, it is perhaps surprisingly Antonio’s father, otherwise portrayed as somewhat lost (all at sea in more than one sense of the term: both restless and left behind), who best captures this sense of impending transition. Talking of magic (and even beyond the mystical connection between owl and Ultima, there is plenty of magic in Anaya’s novel), he says: “To the child it is natural, but for the grown man it loses its naturalness–so as old men we see a different reality. And when we dream it is usually for a lost childhood, or trying to change someone, and that is not good. So, in the end, I accept reality” (248). Ultimately, Antonio will have to accept reality, to be fine with the fact that he will inevitably (like all of us) lose his childhood, and to learn that he cannot change anybody–not his mother, nor his father, or his brothers. (Again, the sisters get remarkably short shrift throughout the novel.) But if he cannot change anybody, he has to find some sympathy for them, perhaps precisely because of the recognition that they cannot be changed, that they are simply playing out their destiny. It is this sympathy, more than any hocus pocus with potions, that is Ultima’s true magic. Though, again, it is up to Antonio’s father to point this out, when he tells his son that “no greater magic can exist” (248).

As the novel heads towards this conclusion, it becomes ever less a specifically “Chicano” novel. These lessons, whatever one may think of them, surely purport to be universal rather than particular. Indeed, as Ultima exits the scene, urging Antonio to “gather my medicines and my herbs and [. . .] take them somewhere along the river and burn them” (260), her “magic” thus becomes transmuted from traditional, indigenous knowledge, located in place and time, to general human sympathy, applicable anywhere “the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills” (262). Of course, this raises the question of what a “Chicano” novel should be in the first place. Why shouldn’t it have aspirations to something like universality? Indeed, the fact that Anaya’s book so successfully and almost seamlessly (magically?) transmutes the particular into the universal is surely a large part of its remarkable success. And yet, I wonder what is lost in this procedure, which at times feels like dilution into rather banal uplift and cheer (“Always have the strength to live. Love life”). Especially given that the novel has in fact portrayed much that is far from lovely–not least the three deaths that Antonio has already witnessed at close quarters even before the book’s dénouement–I for one find its closing moral(ism) somewhat disappointing.

Bless Me, Ultima I

anaya_ultimaRudolfo Anaya’s best-selling Bless Me, Ultima centers on a young boy, Antonio, growing up in the 1940s in a Mexican-American family in semi-rural New Mexico. As the novel opens, he is about to start school but is already beginning to feel the burden of responsibility and a loss of innocence as he negotiates his parents’ contrasting expectations for him: his deeply religious mother hopes that he will become a priest; his father dreams of the open plains and wants to move the entire family to California but becomes distant and turns to drink when he sees this dream frustrated. Though the youngest of six, Antonio is unable to turn to his siblings for support to resolve these tensions or at least alleviate the weight of so much hope and disillusionment. His three much older brothers are off fighting in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and when they return at the war’s end soon make it clear that they are not going to hang around to live out their parents’ desires; his two sisters, though closer to his age, are little more than ciphers and barely feature in the first half of the book.

Of all those living in his house, Antonio is closest to the only one to whom he is not related, an older woman named Ultima (referred to with respect as “la Grande”) who has a reputation as a curandera, a healer or benign witch. Antonio turns to her with his questions about the magic-infused world around him that he is beginning to explore. She takes him along as she gathers herbs for her medicinal concoctions, and even recruits him when she goes to a nearby village to remove a curse that has been laid on Antonio’s uncle. Ultima tells him “the stories and legends of my ancestors” and it is from her that he learns “the glory and the tragedy of the history of my people” (123). But it is not (yet) clear who or what that people are: the disagreements between Antonio’s mother and father are merely the symptom of wider fractures that divide the community. Antonio’s uncertain search for his own identity and independence mirrors a broader struggle waged by the people as a whole.

So far at least, that sense of a coherent “people” rarely comes into focus. It is the often acrimonious divisions that are more evident: between young and old, between farmers and vaqueros, between the Church and indigenous folk beliefs, and ultimately between good and evil. Though there is plenty of talk of custom and ceremony, and despite his shock in starting school and coming into contact with the institutions of the Anglophone state, it is striking that at this stage young Antonio seems to have little sense of his identity as a Mexican-American or Chicano. This may well change, but for now this is a Chicano novel that hardly features “Chicanos” as such.

Indeed, if we imagine Mexican-American culture to be characterized by a tension or conflict between “Mexican” and (US) “American,” by a proximity to or incarnation of the US/Mexican Border, here this split is far from being the determining factor in young Antonio’s life. In many ways, the first half of the novel might as well be set south of the border, in Mexico itself. Instead, the first key cultural tension is that between a Hispanic Catholicism represented by Antonio’s mother and the loosely indigenous-derived folk beliefs associated with both Ultima and Antonio’s friends Samuel and Cico. Cico takes him to a local river to see carp whose presence is explained in terms of a legend in which the gods turn an unfaithful people into fish, which is why the carp cannot be eaten: “It is a sin to catch them,” Samuel has explained. “It is a worse offense to eat them. They are part of the people” (80). But this seems to be a pre-Hispanic people, whose story long precedes the coming of the Spanish Church. And when told that one of the gods was then in turn also transformed into a fish, the golden carp, Antonio is shaken: “If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?” (81). Destined by his mother to be a priest, and yet also picked out by Ultima as helper and confidant, Antonio feels torn between two sets of beliefs, but neither have much if any connection to the Anglo culture that remains at best at the very far horizon of his consciousness, like the semi-mythical notion of the California to which his father want to take them.

The second major tension that structures Antonio’s growing self-consciousness is that between his father’s restlessness as a man of open spaces, the llanos and oceans, and his mother’s attraction to domesticity and rootedness, as a daughter of farmers and denizen of the valleys. This split is encoded in his name, given as Antonio Márez y Luna: On the one hand the patronymic Márez, designating people of the seas (mares); on the other hand the matronymic Luna, signalling a people guided by the seasons and the phases of the moon. But this is a division that is internal to Hispanic colonization, between the conquistador spirit of “men as restless as the seas they sailed and as free as the land they conquered” (6) and the desire for stability and permanence of “the first colonizers [. . .] who carried the charter from the Mexican government to settle the valley” (52). It may be that the external opposition between Hispanic and Anglo ultimately supersedes this conflict and hispanidad will come to signify a more consistent and united identity. But that encounter with the outside is still some way in the future, and for the time being this is the world Antonio lives in and, beyond distant rumors of World Wars and the like, it is more or less all he knows.

Down These Mean Streets II

thomas_mean-streets2The second half of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets is much less preoccupied with questions of identity than the first. It seems as though Thomas has accepted that his primary identity is the one bestowed on him by society, rather than family: he is black, even if he can occasionally “pass” as something else, as when (in Texas) he goes to a brothel with a Mexican friend and, by acting as though he only speaks Spanish, assures the establishment that he is foreign rather than African American. As he leaves, though, he switches to English and watches as the prostitute’s “smile fall[s] off and a look of horror fill[s] the empty space it left–‘I just want you to know,’” he tells her, “’that you got fucked by a nigger, by a black man!’” (189). If he is going to be penalized for his blackness, in other words, by this point he sees that it can also be wielded as a weapon.

Towards the end of the book, in an odd and somewhat underdeveloped passage, Thomas even seems to be taken by Black Nationalism: under the influence of a follower of Elijah Muhammed, he becomes a Muslim and takes on the name “Hussein Afmit Ben Hassen” (296). Neither the religion nor the name stick (for reasons that Thomas does not explain), but it is notable that he has little corresponding interest, even momentarily, in his Puerto Rican heritage or latinidad. Indeed, though he signs on to work on a ship that travels to the West Indies, it is not clear that he visits the island, or even that the thought to do so ever crosses his mind. “Puerto Rican” becomes simply a qualifier, albeit a necessary one, to “black”: when a plainclothes detective grabs him and calls him a “black bastard,” Thomas replies “If you don’t mind, I’m a Puerto Rican black bastard” (235). His blackness is no longer contested.

But the book’s fundamental concern continues to be the self. In some ways, this is unsurprising given the generic conventions of the memoir, whose point is largely to narrate the unfolding or discovery of what makes an individual what he or she is. But Piri is more concerned with “me” than most. Thomas tells us that “one thing still stood out clear; one things still made sense and counted–me. Nothing else but me” (95). And asked for “who do you love?” he seems hardly to hesitate before answering “Me” (259). He has many associates but relatively few friends; relationships become significant only when they are at an end, as with his friend Brew (who disappears), his mother (who dies), or his girlfriend Trina (who marries another man).

Ultimately Piri is not particularly interested in other people. Nor is he all that concerned with a broader notion of community or “people.” Sent to prison for robbery with violence, there is a point, when the inmates rise up against the guards, at which Thomas has to decide on his allegiances and belonging, and ends up split, arguing with his self: “These damn cons are my people . . . What do you mean, your people? Your people are outside the cells, home, in the streets” (281). In the end, though, it is more that he has no people.

Rejected for the most part by mainstream society, with the exception of the anomalous episode of Muslim conversion he is unable or unwilling to find any alternative sense of community. The book’s final scene is emblematic. Returning to Harlem and to the building he once lived in, he meets an old friend, Carlito, who at first does not recognize him. It turns out that Carlito is, like Piri had once been, a junkie. Hearing his mumbled but unconvincing promises that he will get clean, Thomas realizes that all this is simply part of his past, of his numerous yesterdays: “my whole world was yesterday. I ain’t got nothing but today and a whole lot of tomorrows” (330). Ignoring what Carlito is saying, Piri leaves him behind and “walked out into the street, past hurrying people and an unseen jukebox beating out a sad-assed bolero” (331). Any salvation here is going to be individual rather than collective. There is little if any sense of any common political project.

Even when Thomas bumps into a boy who reminds him uncannily of himself, or of his former self–“This kid shot a cop and got shot; I shot a cop and got shot. What’s happened to me is going to happen to him” (315)–he is hardly keen to communicate his own experience and learning, fobbing him off rather with a “Buenas noches” and the unconvincing and unlikely reassurance that “You’ll probably get a break, don’t worry about it” (315). Taken as a whole, however, the book gives the lie to this superficial prognosis. Piri himself catches very few breaks. And if he survives to tell the tale, it is hardly thanks to anyone else but to the fact that he has shown, over and over, that whatever the colour of his skin he has “heart.” And it is heart, a mixture of bravery and persistence, capacity to affect or be affected, that is untethered from any notion of identity or belonging, that is finally what counts. This is what leads to acceptance on the street, where “if you you ain’t got heart, you ain’t got nada” (47). You make your own luck, and you do so as an individual (because heart is what defines the individual), not as part of a group.

Down These Mean Streets I

thomas_mean-streets2The story Piri Thomas tells in his memoir Down These Mean Streets is a story of cultural and ethnic confusion. Thomas, the US-born dark-skinned son of Puerto Rican immigrants, grows up in a multicultural and multilingual Harlem marked by “the roar of multicolored kids, a street blend of Spanish and English with a strong tone of Negro American” (121). Everyone lives cheek-by-jowl, and yet the streets are also carved up into jealously-guarded territorial units. The family moves three blocks, from 111th to 114th Street, and they find themselves on “Italian turf” (24). Immediately picked on by the local gang of Italian kids, Piri wins their respect by obeying a cross-cultural code of omertà and not squealing on them when things go too far and a fight ends up with him half-blinded and in hospital. He has passed a rite of passage, and it turns out that “Italianos wouldn’t be so bad if they spoke Spanish” (39).

However “mean” these Manhattan streets are, they are infinitely preferable to the Long Island suburbs to which the family move later: “a foreign country [that . . .] looked so pretty and clean but it spoke a language you couldn’t dig. The paddy [white] boys talked about things you couldn’t dig [. . .]. No matter how much you busted your hump trying to be one of them, you’d never belong, they wouldn’t let you” (88). The mixture and confusion of the city might be violent and dangerous, but it is better than the cloying hypocrisy of the suburbs, where a girl at a dance treats Piri politely enough to his face, only for him immediately afterwards to overhear her telling her friends: “Imagine the nerve of that black thing” (85). If in Long Island he is repeatedly put back in his place, in Harlem he feels that place might still be somehow up for grabs.

Struggling to stake out his role in a context defined by poverty and social antagonism (in which the disadvantaged are constantly at each others’ throats), Thomas has to resolve the contradiction that he is seen as black even though his family, and particularly his similarly dark-skinned father, insist that as Puerto Ricans they have more in common with whites, that they are perhaps half-white or almost white. His father even accentuates his Puerto Rican accent if it will help distance him from the stigma of blackness. Yet as Piri points out, the dominant white culture tries to maintain an image of purity and inviolability: “Poppa, they don’t care how you feel inside. They don’t care if you look white. No mix, no mingling–for Christ’s sake, even your shit gotta be practically white!” (150). Lambasting him for his self-denial, Piri tries to instill in his father some notion of black pride: “You gonna have to wake up to the fact that you ain’t white, but that’s all right, Poppa, that’s all right. There’s pride galore in being a Negro, Poppa” (151). It is not yet clear, however, that Piri himself quite believes this.

Still confused or torn between different possible identities or identifications, Piri decides to head south, as though he could gain some kind of clarity the other side of the Mason/Dixon line. As he explains to his friend, Brew, an African American who has moved north: “It might just set me straight on a lotta things. Maybe I can stop being confused and come in on a right stick” (127). Brew reluctantly agrees to accompany him, “but only on the condition you cool your role” (128). Yet the heat or passion that Piri feels seems to come precisely from the fact that he does not yet feel he has a “role.”

Nor does the first stop on the journey south enlighten him much; if anything, it just adds to the confusion. In Norfolk, Virginia, waiting for a ship to take them down the coast, Piri and Brew meet a man, working as a waiter, who is almost Piri’s mirror image or distorted double. For this Gerald Andrew West is also a northerner who is seeking some kind of clarity in the south, in his case expecting to discover “the warmth and harmony of the southern Negro, their wonderful capacity for laughter and strength [. . .] the richness of their poverty” (170). Moreover, Gerald, too, has constructed this romanticized image of blackness from a position of marginality and mixture: he is not exactly white, although, “tan-colored” he is “not really very negroid-looking” (170). Yet he is much more certain of his own identity, arguing that this should be a matter of choice and affective affiliation: “I have the right to identify with whatever race or nationality approximates my emotional feeling and physical characteristics” (176). As Piri observes, “Gerald had problems something like mine. Except that he was a Negro trying to make Puerto Rican and I was a Puerto Rican trying to make Negro” (177). They are choosing different roots out of a shared confusion.

But in other ways, Gerald’s and Piri’s strategies will turn out to be the same. What is interesting is that, in addition, Gerald defines himself as a potential author: he is “writing a book on the Negro situation” that he hopes will eventually “contribute in some way to the Negro’s cause” (171). For we know, thanks to the evidence of the book we are reading, that Piri, too, though at this stage he does not know it, will end up a writer. And though, half-way through the memoir, it is still unclear what kind of resolution he may find for his sense of confusion, we do know that it will take the form of the text that we are holding in our hands.

With His Pistol in His Hand II

paredes_coverThe second half of Américo Paredes’s ”With His Pistol in His Hand” consists of a painstaking analysis of the corrido “Gregorio Cortez.” After a discussion of the history of the corrido genre as a whole, and its relation to other genres of popular Mexican music such as the romance or the décima, Paredes gives us the text of the ballad itself, in multiple versions and variants. One is a printed broadside from Mexico City, published in 1925 but probably written very shortly after the incidents it describes, in August or September 1901; although the music for this version is lost, Paredes tells us that it is not in fact a border ballad, and offers it mostly for the sake of comparison with the versions that are. Eight variants are transcriptions of performances, in one case of a record from 1920 and in almost all the other cases of “field recordings” made by Paredes himself of singers, both young and old, male and female, in the mid-1950s. Finally, one of the versions of the ballad–which is also the longest of them all–is Paredes’s own reconstruction of what the song might have looked (or sounded) like in its original incarnation, or at least in its very early stages. Having presented us with this wealth of primary material, Paredes goes on to analyze it, in all its variations, stanza by stanza and practically line by line. He has a detailed discussion of such elements as metre, stress, and syllable count; of verb tenses and conjunctions, and the use of words such as “ya” and “y”; and of imagery and language, including the peculiarities of border Spanish that the corrido reproduces.

In short, for a song that in Ramón Ayala’s rendition, for instance, lasts all of three minutes and twenty-four seconds, Paredes really goes to town. Indeed, the ratio between the length of the text to be interpreted here and the number of words expended in its interpretation and commentary is quite extraordinary: a corrido that in its longest (reconstructed) version comprises 28 four-line stanzas covering four pages is subject to around 100 pages of interpretation. But all this makes the book’s key point: that we should take such texts seriously.

Paredes does not exactly claim that the corrido is literary, as indeed strictly it is not if we define “literature” as written or printed matter. Not that this is the definition that Paredes employs: the version of the ballad that is printed (the Mexico City broadside) he repeatedly describes as “pseudoliterary,” apparently because of its style, which abandons “the corrido stanza [. . .] in favor of the literary redondilla”; the result is “awkwardness and dullness. [. . .] The reader who knows no Spanish may not appreciate to the full the scantiness of inspiration of the broadside” (182, 183). By contrast, “The maker of the Border corrido makes no effort to be original or literary, and by staying within the ballad traditions of his people he succeeds in composing in a natural and often a forceful style” (183).

While Paredes is not explicit about the basis for his judgements of aesthetic success, more than once he praises the ballad for its “vigor” (207, 209, 224), for its “simplicity of diction and [. . .] dramatic style” that avoids “verbal adornments” (219). Where the “pseudoliterary broadside [. . . prefers] the highest sounding word,” Border ballads “are composed in the language that the rancheros use every day” (219). And yet at the same time Paredes is keen to locate the corrido within an extensive and quite distinguished transnational tradition that dates back as far as the Spanish Middle Ages. In other words, it is precisely in that it does not strive for literary value (as does the broadside) that the Border ballad becomes a legitimate object of study and can be treated with the care and attention usually reserved for canonical literary texts.

Hence the comparisons with, for instance, romances dedicated to El Cid: “In response to conditions similar to those which produced the romance in Spain, the dormant, half-forgotten romance tradition in America revived in the corrido” (245). Moreover, not only does the Border corrido revive and gain (perhaps unconscious) inspiration from this venerable lineage, Paredes is also keen to underscore that it is far from derivative; a ballad such as “Gregorio Cortez” also adds something new and distinctive to this tradition. It “created some conventions of its own, conventions related to the border conflict which was its environment.” It initiates, in other words, a new set of aesthetic and cultural developments, which are then later taken up by the “Greater Mexican corrido tradition, which does not begin until ten years after El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” (240).

In sum, however much Paredes wishes to mark the Border ballad’s distance from a literary self-consciousness that he sees as forced and un-natural (“pseudoliterary”), he is also keen to demonstrate that it is far more than the simple reflection of social reality or documentation of events and attitudes that mattered to the subaltern peoples of the Border. It is a creative contribution to a long-standing cultural genre. As such, the justification for its study is as much aesthetic as it is political or sociological.

“With His Pistol in His Hand” I

paredes_coverThe first half of Américo Paredes’s ”With His Pistol in His Hand” is about the construction and reconstruction of truth on the US/Mexican border. Part One opens with a historical panorama of the Lower Río Grande Border, previously “the old Spanish province of Nuevo Santander, colonized in 1749 by José de Escandon” (7), and continues with a narrative that combines history, geography, and anthropology from the colonial era to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe and on to the early twentieth century. But right from the outset, Paredes manifests his discomfort with what he calls “those documented old men’s tales called histories” (xi). It is not simply that written history lies or is biased–though that is true, too, and Paredes quotes “the most distinguished historian Texas has produced” as claiming matter-of-factly that “The Mexican warrior . . . was on the whole inferior to the Comanche and wholly unequal to the Texan” (17). It is more that Paredes claims that by introducing a multiplicity of sources, ranging from contemporaneous newspaper accounts of specific events to folk memory, oral history, and cultural manifestations such as the border ballad, we gain access both to multiple points of view and also to the broader truths that the very fact of variation and deviation reveals.

Paredes’s case study here is the tale of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican American who, the bald facts tell us and all renditions of the story agree, in 1901 shot and killed a US Sheriff and was then pursued on horseback and foot hundreds of miles by various posses of Texas Rangers before being captured, tried, and convicted of murder. Finally, however, after many years in jail his sentence was overturned as he was judged to have shot in self-defence.

But Paredes begins not with the bald facts or with what he can ascertain about the truth of the tale (this comes later), but rather with an extended version of the “legend.” This legend, he notes, never comes complete: it is an “amorphous body of narrative” (108) that is told in parts that are often inconsistent or contradictory. There is “no standard version.” As such, the compilation Paredes gives us is necessarily his “own version,” which he has constructed by combining “those parts that seemed to [him] the furthest removed from fact” and that yet (he implies) are for that very reason “the most revealing of folk attitudes” (109). For it is the inconsistencies and changes that ultimately provide surest evidence of continuities and certainties. It is precisely the “extreme elasticity of reminiscence and oral report” that makes the tale of Gregorio Cortez a suitable vehicle for the articulation of long-standing and deeply-embedded attitudes, affects, and beliefs about conflict in the border region.

Take for instance the very basic question of Cortez’s physical appearance, on which there is little if any agreement among the many variations. And yet there is a certain consistency depending on who is telling the tale’s. In the first instance, “Those who knew him describe him as opposite to themselves. Short men describe him as tall; tall men say he was short. Fair men call him dark; dark men call him fair” (11). But second, and “more interesting still,” Paredes tells us, “those who did not know him describe him as like themselves. A short, very dark man told me that Cortez had been just a little dark man, chiquitito y prietito. [. . .] A fair, blue-eyed Anglo-American [. . .] remembers him as fair” (111). Likewise when it comes to Cortez’s occupation: “The laborer made of Cortez a laborer, the farmer a farmer, the vaquero a vaquero, the suspected smuggler a smuggling suspect–each applying his own situation, his own disagreeable contacts with the Anglo-American, as the reason for Cortez’s defending of his right” (113). As a result, therefore, the plasticity and malleability of the oral production and reproduction of the story, handed down in bits and pieces on diverse occasions, give us “a synthesis of the Border Mexican, who saw himself collectively in Cortez” (113). The figure of Cortez comes to combine the particular (a name, a place, an event, a date) with the general (the situation and position of an entire community) and even aspects of the universal as the Chicano border legend resonates with similar stories told for instance on the Celtic frontier where England meets Scotland.

In the complex amalgamation of “fact and fancy,” of both “exaggerations” and “purely folkloric elements” (114, 115), it would be wrong to try to eliminate the fantastic, to pare down the story to the bare bones of whatever historical “truth” might still be identified. Indeed, to do so would be also to eliminate and misunderstand history itself, in that the legend is not simply a (foggy, distorted) version of what “really” happened, but it also helped to determine the events that it represents. As Paredes concludes Part One of his book, in what at first sight is a strange inversion of temporality and causality: “It was as if the Border people had dreamed Gregorio Cortez before producing him, and had sung his life and deeds before he was born” (125). The issue is less whether the legend matches the facts, but that border culture was waiting for the arrival of facts that might, more or less or closely enough, match the legend already in gestation and looking for a form of expression.

American Dirt

american-dirtA place-holder for some of the many articles written as part of (or about) the controversy over American Dirt:

There’s a lot more, of course.